Calories 101 – What is a Calorie?

What is a Calorie

A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise one gram of water by one degree Centigrade. The "calorie" used in reference to food is actually abbreviated for kilocalorie (kCal) which equals 1000 calories.

How Do We Use Them?

Calories are eaten in the form of carbohydrates, protein, fat and alcohol. Carbohydrates and protein both yield 4 calories per gram. Fat and alcohol are more efficient fuel sources that yield nine and seven calories per gram respectively.

Many people either forget or don’t know that alcohol has almost as many calories as fat. In addition to fat, carbohydrates, and protein, food contains water, vitamins, and minerals. While those elements are essential to life and health, they do not contain any calories.

Carbohydrates, fat, and protein are macronutrients (macro means large) that have to be broken down into smaller pieces before the body can use them as fuel. This process of digestion begins as soon as we put food into our mouths.

On contact with food, enzymes in our saliva begin to break down the food into smaller elements before they end up in their usable form, adenosine triphosphate or ATP. ATP is the only form of energy that can be used by the cells in our body, no matter if this energy comes from fat, protein, or carbohydrates. 

What Happens If We Don’t Get Enough?

There are many health risks that come from not getting enough calories and nutrients. This can result in a range of symptoms from mild headache, nausea, and fatigue up to death and disease in severe cases.

Getting enough calories and nutrients is critical for the body to function properly. Everything from our ability to fight infection or to concentrate on mental tasks depends on us taking in enough calories each day.

While it is important to take in enough calories, it is equally important that those calories are accompanied by other nutrients such as water, vitamins, and minerals. The word vitamin comes from the two terms "vital" and "amino acid". Vital means necessary for life. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Vitamins assist the body in carrying out functions that are necessary for life.

The ideal number of calories needed varies from person to person. However, women should not eat less than 1200 calories per day. Men shouldn’t eat less than 1600 calories per day. Eating fewer calories than that is considered clinical starvation and could result in serious adverse affects.

Many people routinely eat too few calories in an effort to lose weight but that actually works against weight loss by slowing down the metabolism.

What Happens If We Get Too Many?

Just as severe as the consequences of not eating enough calories are the consequences of eating too many. Eating too many calories, no matter if they come from fat, carbohydrates, protein, or alcohol will result in the body storing those extra calories as fat. Most people understand that eating too many calories can result in everything from obesity and disease to death.

The United States is currently facing a childhood obesity epidemic of staggering proportions. This is resulting in diseases in these overweight children that were formerly only seen in adults. One thing about fat cells that is not widely known is the fact that the fat cells themselves never go away once they are made in the body. You can shrink them, but once they’re there, they never go away.

The take-home lesson is that moderation is one of the keys to health and longevity.